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Early Childhood Study of Language and Literacy Development of Spanish-Speaking Children

 

Principal Investigators: Patton O. Tabors and Nonie Lesaux, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Other Investigator: Mariela Páez, Boston College

Subproject 1 of Acquiring Literacy in English: Crosslinguistic, Intralinguistic, and Developmental Factors

PURPOSE

The specific aim of this five-year longitudinal research project is to identify the factors that influence the course of English literacy development for young Spanish-speaking children. We are following a sample of young children from homes where Spanish is spoken from the time they enter pre-kindergarten through second grade. The research project has been designed to answer the following three interrelated questions: 

SAMPLES AND ACTIVITIES

The Early Childhood Study of Language and Literacy Development of Spanish-speaking Children has been underway since October 2000. We are presently in Year 5 of the five-year project. The first year of the project was devoted to instrument and sample development. A total of 350 children from homes where Spanish was one of the languages spoken was recruited from four Head Start programs and two public preschool programs in Massachusetts and Maryland. This sample is referred to as the ECS sample. A total of 152 children were recruited from Head Start programs in Puerto Rico. This sample is referred to as the Puerto Rico comparative sample (PRC). Further, a subsample of 51 children was drawn from the ECS sample. These children represent the range of dual language proficiencies found in the entire sample of four year olds.  Four categories were developed: children who scored below the sample mean in both languages (low-low), children who scored above the sample mean in one language and below the sample mean in the other (high English, low Spanish or high Spanish, low English), and children who scored above the sample mean in both languages (high-high). This subsample is referred to as the representative subsample (RS). 

In Year 2 the DeLSS-developed Demographic Survey was administered to parents, and the children in the ECS and PRC samples were assessed twice (fall and spring, pre-K). Further, classroom observations were done in all classrooms and teacher questionnaires were collected. In Year 3, the children in the representative subsample were visited at home, and the children in the ECS and PRC samples were assessed once (spring, kindergarten). Again, classroom observations were done in all classrooms and teacher questionnaires were collected.

In Year 4 the children in the ECS and PRC samples were assessed in first grade and teachers were asked to complete questionnaires that included information about their literacy practices. In Year 5 equivalent data will be collected from both samples in second grade.

SOURCES OF DATA

There are four distinct sources of data in this research:

1.  The DeLSS-developed Demographic Survey was administered to 321 parents of children in the ECS sample and 119 parents of children in the PRC sample. This survey included questions about country of origin and age of immigration of the parents, child’s birth location and age of immigration, number of people in the household, educational level of parents, income level of the household, present occupation of the parents, provision of literacy materials for the child (including the language of those materials), frequency of book reading with the child (including the language used), and the language or languages used when family members speak to the child and the language or languages the child uses to speak to members of the family.

Basic demographic information includes: 84% of the children in the ECS sample were born in the United States and 5% were born in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Although most of the children in the sample were born in the U.S., their parents come from 22 countries and Puerto Rico. Twenty-four percent of the children did not have a father or male figure present in the home. The ECS sample is also diverse in terms of language use at home, parental years of education, and family income. Of the participating families, 69.8% report that they use only Spanish at home, while the remainder report that they use varying amounts of Spanish and English at home.  Levels of parental education range from 0 to 22 years. Nineteen percent of the mothers had completed eight years or less of education, 29.2% had completed 12 years of education, and 29.3% had some higher education. Twenty-five percent of the fathers completed eight years or less of education, 17.5% completed 12 years, and 26.6% have some higher education. The average years of formal education for mothers (M = 10.96, SD = 3.72) and for fathers (M = 10.69, SD = 3.75) is similar. In terms of family annual income, 77% of the families in the sample reported making less than $30,000, and 21% reported they made less than $10,000 (Tabors, Páez, & López, 2003). 

2.  Classroom observations and teacher questionnaires were collected in the 75 classrooms attended by the children in the ECS sample and the 16 classrooms attended by the children in the PRC sample in pre-K. Classroom observations resulted in a variable related to the quality of the classroom and to the language use in the classroom. The teacher questionnaires included information about ethnic identity, educational level, years of experience and years of experience with second language learners (ECS only), classroom composition in terms of density of second language learners (ECS only), and the teachers’ estimated proficiency in the languages they speak (ECS only). Classroom observations and teacher questionnaires were also collected in the 170 classrooms attended by the children in the ECS sample and the 34 classrooms attended by the children in the PRC sample in kindergarten.

3.  Language and literacy assessments were administered in the fall and the spring of the pre-K year (2001, 2002) and the spring of the kindergarten year (2003). For the ECS sample, the assessments in the battery consist of parallel instruments in Spanish and English that are administered one-on-one by separate assessors, one for each language. Areas assessed are: phonological awareness1, vocabulary2, letter and word recognition3, writing and spelling4, general language ability5, discourse skill6, and emergent literacy7 (see Tabors, Páez, & López, 2003, for details).  The children in the PRC sample are assessed using the Spanish battery only.

4.  Home visits and more-intensive school visits were made to the representative sub-sample of 51 children. The mothers were interviewed with the Home Language, Literacy, and Culture Interview (HLLCI) and asked to complete two interactional tasks with their children, a book sharing and a homework task. A mealtime tape recording was also completed by these families. 

At this time, results are available for the home demographic survey, scores on selected language and literacy assessments from the two data collection periods during the children’s pre-K year, the classroom observations and questionnaires from the pre-K year, and subsample data for a small number of families.

FINDINGS

1.  A sample of predominantly low-income, Spanish-English bilingual children demonstrate considerable variability in their dual language skills at age 4; on average, oral language abilities, particularly vocabulary, are low in both languages when compared to monolingual children of the same age; their bilingual language proficiency, as indexed by their vocabulary skills, is related to their life circumstances and their home environments.  Results from the Phonological Awareness test show that many of these four year olds were just beginning to grasp the concepts being assessed. Cross-linguistic analyses and comparisons of the Spanish Phonological Awareness results for the ECS sample and the PRC sample showed no differences. Results from the WLPB-R subtests show that children in the ECS sample performed better in the early literacy tests (Letter-Word Identification and Dictation) than in the oral language tasks (Picture Vocabulary and Memory for Sentences) in both English and Spanish. Given that these children are young English-language learners, it is, perhaps, not surprising that they scored, on average, close to two standard deviations below the norm in the oral language subtests in English when compared to English monolingual children.  However, they also scored, on average, close to two standard deviations below the monolingual norm in the oral language subtests in Spanish (Tabors, Páez, & López, 2003; also see Cobo-Lewis, Pearson, Eilers, & Umbel, 2002, for a similar finding).   Further, the comparative sample of matched SES children in Puerto Rico scored, on average, only one standard deviation below the monolingual norm. Regression analyses used to predict language proficiency as indexed by the children’s Picture Vocabulary scores in each language in the fall indicate that 32.7% of the variation in Spanish vocabulary can be explained by the child being born outside the US, by the child being read to in Spanish at home, and by the child being exposed to and using Spanish at home, while 33% of the variation in English vocabulary can be explained by the number of people in the family (negative), by household income, by the child attending preschool as a three year old, and by the child being exposed to and using English at home. 

2.  The parents of these children hold differing views about their children’s language and literacy development and the role that parents play in that development. They also have differing literacy practices that may impact their children’s preparation for school literacy. Preliminary analyses of the home visit data of the Representative Subsample confirm that factors such as immigration history, parental education, and motivation for achievement are important in predicting how parents view their bilingual children’s development. Not surprisingly, parents who have immigrated most recently and who believe that it is important to maintain Spanish within the home take a proactive role in teaching their children Spanish, resulting in their children scoring higher in Spanish on the assessments. Parents who have been in the U.S. longer have a tendency to emphasize the importance of English, and their children score higher in English on the assessments. Parents whose children score well in both Spanish and English, however, are distinguished by higher educational levels and consider bilingualism an asset.  These parents have high expectations for their children’s success in English in school, but also mobilize the necessary resources to have the children continue to develop their Spanish language abilities at home (López, 2003). In parent-child interactions in these families, strikingly different patterns emerge.  For example, one child in the low-low category heard many fewer different words in a book sharing activity (88) and a homework task (19) than a child in the high-high category (book sharing: 339; homework task: 333) (Quiroz, under review). 

3.  The children, on average, made better than expected gains in some of their language and literacy skills in each language during the pre-K year when compared to monolingual speakers of Spanish and English, but there were also some areas where expected gains were not made. Classroom quality and use of Spanish in the classroom were two factors that had an impact on the changes from fall to spring. The ECS sample made significant gains in raw scores in phonological awareness in both Spanish (t(308) = -14.3; p<.001) and English (t(305) = -10.1; p<.001) from fall to spring and better than expected gains in standard scores on Memory for Sentences in both Spanish (t(300) =  -2.4; p<.05) and English (t(302) = -5.63; p<.001).They also made better than expected gains in standard scores on English Picture Vocabulary (t(309) = -3.93: p<.001)and Dictation (t(308) = -4.1; p<.001) from fall to spring.  

The ECS sample made age-appropriate gains in standard scores on Letter-Word ID in English and on Dictation in Spanish. However, the ECS sample also made less than expected gains in Spanish Picture Vocabulary (t(314) = 4.94; p<.001) and Spanish Letter-Word ID (t(311) = 8.42; p<.001) (Páez, López, & Tabors, under review). 

In regression analyses, classroom quality provided significant increment to R2 when added to a base model of the fall scores when predicting the spring scores on Dictation in both Spanish and English, on Memory for Sentences and Phonological Awareness in English, and on Letter-Word ID in Spanish.

In regression analyses, use of Spanish as the instructional language provided significant increment to R2 when added to a base model of the fall scores when predicting the spring scores for Picture Vocabulary in Spanish and Phonological Awareness in Spanish.

4.  The language and literacy assessment results can be further summarized as follows:

5.  The Spanish-dominant children in the ECS sample, most of whom attended English-language pre-K classrooms, made considerable gains in pronunciation of English phonemes from fall to spring.  In an analysis of 20 Spanish-dominant and 20 English-dominant children from the ECS sample, it was found that, although the pronunciation of English phonemes differed between the two groups in the fall, by the spring, the Spanish-dominant group (60-100% correct) had caught up to their English-dominant peers (75-100% correct) (López & Miccio, 2003).

There are two major conclusions to be drawn from these results:

REFERENCES    

Cobo-Lewis, A. B., Pearson, B. Z., Eilers, R. E., & Umbel, V. C.  (2002).  Effects of bilingualism and bilingual education on oral and written Spanish skills: A multifactor study of standardized test outcomes.  In D. K. Oller & R. E. Eilers (Eds.), Language and literacy in bilingual children (pp. 3-21).  Clevedon, England:  Multilingual Matters.

López, L.M.  (2003).  A look into the homes of Spanish-speaking preschool children. In J. Cohen, K. McAlister, K. Rolstad, & J. MacSwan (Eds.),  ISB4: Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

López, L. M., & Miccio, A. W. (2003). Phonological acquisition of English and Spanish in bilingual preschool children. Proceedings of the 15th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Barcelona, 1553-1556.

Páez, M. M., López, L. M., & Tabors, P. O.  (under review).  Dual language and literacy development of Spanish-speaking children: Results from the preschool year.  Manuscript submitted for publication.

Quiroz, B.  (under review).  Portraits of four Spanish/English-speaking families during language interactions in the context of literacy-oriented activities. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Tabors, P. O., Páez, M. M., & López, L. M.  (2003).  Dual language abilities of bilingual four year olds: Initial findings from the Early Childhood Study of Language and Literacy Development of Spanish-Speaking Children.  NABE Journal of Research and Practice, Winter, 70-91.  http://www.uc.edu/njrp.

Funding: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

1 This is a researcher-developed measure.

2 Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery – Revised:  Picture Vocabulary

3 Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery – Revised:  Letter-Word Identification

4 Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery – Revised:  Dictation

5 Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery – Revised:  Memory for Sentences

6 This is a researcher-developed measure.

7 This is a researcher-developed measure.

Funding: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

— a project of the DELSS research initiative —

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Last Updated: 10/20/05

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